Roots and Causes

People have often asked me about the root causes of forced displacement. They often suggest that it would be wiser for us to focus on finding solutions to those rather than focusing on serving refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people.

It is important to identify root causes. But it is also critical for some of us to also focus our attention, energy and resources on helping those bearing the brunt of systemic violence and hatred in the world. We need to engage the issue of forced displacement on multiple levels at the same time – just as we need ambulances, ERs, hospitals, long-term care facilities, and PT professionals while other industries seek out cures to disease and other life-threatening conditions.

While IAFR is committed to helping the church show up in humanitarian space in life-giving ways, we can’t help but often think about the causes behind the flight of the people we love and serve.

Many think that the root causes of forced displacement include war, persecution, failed states and gross violations of human rights. And while it is true that these are the immediate causes that force people to flee their homes and countries, these are not the root causes.

We have to peel another layer off the onion and ask, what are the forces that ignite wars? What empowers governments to single out specific people and/or groups of people to deny them basic human rights and even persecute them? Why do governments fail, losing the ability to protect and serve their own people? I believe that these questions will help us venture further down the path when it comes to identifying and understanding root causes behind forced displacement.

As we reflect on these questions, we will also begin to see the warning signs within our own societies. Signs that we may be embracing, normalizing and strengthening the very things that fuel the hatred and violence behind forced displacement.

The word “root” is very helpful as roots are underground and out of sight. We will only identify root causes of forced displacement if we dig below the surface.

Consider the buckthorn tree

It’s a fast growing and spreading tree that plagues many of us here in USA. It was brought from Europe to the US in the 1800s and used as an ornamental shrub and helpful windbreak. But what was was initially perceived to be pretty and useful has become a plague. The Minnesota DNR identifies the many ways buckthorn is a threat to our habitat:

  • It out-competes native plants for nutrients, light and moisture
  • It degrades wildlife habitat
  • It threatens the future of forests, wetlands, prairies
  • It contributes to erosion by shading out other plants that grow on the forest floor
  • It serves as a host to other pests
  • It forms an impenetrable layer of vegetation
  • It lacks natural controls like insects or disease that would curb its growth

There are many websites devoted to “buckthorn removal”. There is no quick and easy say to defeat buckthorn. It turns out that my multi year battle with buckthorn is the norm and complete victory isn’t possible. I’ll be fighting it for as long as I have a yard.

Because it is difficult to uproot, I initially just cut it off at ground level and did my best to damage the stump thinking it wouldn’t survive. It proved me wrong. My attempt to kill it amounted to pruning it and making it stronger. It’s roots went deeper and it began to shoot up new sprouts everywhere.

I was losing the battle. So, I rolled up my sleeves, grabbed a shovel and dug them out, one by one. It became quickly apparent that my earlier attempts at killing the trees simply made their root system stronger and more difficult to uproot. It turns out that it is far easier to uproot a young buckthorn tree than it is an older one.

I am impressed with the way buckthorn sinks and establishes its roots. Not only do they go deep, they also shoot off major root systems horizontally – often somewhere around 6-12″ under the soil. And those off shoots make the trees really tough to uproot. It is often impossible to do without a shovel.

Back to root causes

I mention all of this simply to underline that dealing with root issues may not prove to be a quick and simple solution to the escalating numbers of people being forced to flee their homes and countries. The root issues are not making the news headlines. They lurk under the surface. If we focus on the immediate causes of forced displacement alone, we may later discover we have been unintentionally strengthening the root causes.

I am going to ponder the seeds that give life to the forces of hatred and violence that uproot people. I hope you will too. I welcome your comments and thoughts.

I expect that we will find the roots of much of today’s displacement are centuries old and that they have entangled themselves deep within our own hearts over the generations.

Needing shelter in the Cities

The text came during supper tonight. A man in the Twin Cities needs shelter…

He fled Somali and while uprooted has come to be a follower of Jesus. And while the US government acknowledges that he would likely be killed for his faith if deported back to Somalia, it still refused to give him asylum – permanent refuge and a pathway to citizenship. So the US will not deport him – but they will also not grant him place – or even a work permit at this time.

How is someone supposed to live in the US without a work permit?

It’s a cruel joke as it feeds the misinformed stereotype that refugees and migrants are lazy. This man desperately wants to work and earn his keep. But the US won’t let him.

He’s spent the past 18 months in a Salvation Army shelter. Their policy is to limit people to 12 months in a shelter – but they understand this brother has nowhere to go.

A friend of mine who once worked in Somalia asked if IAFR might have a space for this brother in one of our Jonathan Houses – homes in which we offer shelter to asylum seekers during the 6-18 months that they are not able to legally work in the US while their case is examined. They don’t even get access to social services during this time.

It’s like we are trying to set vulnerable people up to fail.

I messaged our local IAFR Ministry Leader about this need. She quickly replied that there is a space open in the Jonathan House for men. Within a couple of hours I was able to connect my friend with our team in Minnesota.

This is when the church shines.

Strangers connect through the amazing network of the Church in order to help a vulnerable stranger in our community.

Even if we are able to meet this Somali brother’s need for shelter, he still faces life challenges the size of Goliath. He needs our prayers. He needs a supportive community of faith. He needs healing after living in a state of toxic stress for so many years. He needs place.

For these we pray. So be it.

Everything is on the line

She’s been a refugee for over 20 years. She was refused permanent refuge by the first country in which she sought asylum. So she was forced to flee to another. Today she told me that in 14 days she will be interviewed by the people who have the authority to grant or deny her place in her new country of refuge.

September 25th. Everything is on the line.

She loves Jesus and says he is giving her peace. But I still ask that you would join me in praying for our sister at this critical time.

Perhaps you can pray with me…

Father in heaven – Father with us here now,
I pray that you will give our sister peace of heart and mind as she anticipates the upcoming interview.
I pray that you will give her favor with the authorities.
I pray that you would incline their hearts to believe her need for refuge is real.
I pray that you would open the way for her to settle and make herself at home in this new country of refuge.
May she know your faithful presence with her always.
I pray in the name of Jesus.
So be it.

Partner – Dr. George Kalantzis

It was a joy and blessing to have Dr. George Kalantzis from Wheaton College (IL) lead our morning sessions exploring the nature and meaning of the gospel during our annual IAFR missionary conference this year.

George has played a key role in our partnership with Wheaton College and its Humanitarian Disaster Institute in the past 4+ years in Kakuma refugee camp (Kenya). He plans to travel to Kakuma with me again in March 2020 to continue investing in the refugee church leaders with whom we partner. Dr. Margaret Diddams, Provost of Wheaton College, also plans to join us on that visit.

We thank God for partners like George who not only teach theology but also make themselves fully available to reflect deeply on the Gospel.

From numbers to faces

Some people have had a tough week…

I met with a man who is seeking asylum here in the US. We spent about 3 1/2 hours together. After sharing much of his own story, he told me about his wife and son, living on the edge of a war zone half a world away in Africa. He worries about their safety and lives with the daily stress of not knowing if the US will let him stay and rebuild his life. He can’t do much to help his family until he has a status here that will enable him to apply for family reunification. In the meantime, he can hardly sleep.

This morning I got an email from a friend who has been a refugee for many years. As a refugee pastor, he started a ministry caring for the most vulnerable people in his area. But last night, a friend told him that he needed to flee his country of refuge due to false rumors that have inflamed other refugees to the point of seeking to harm him. So he fled to a neighboring country. In his email, he was asking if I knew anyone at the UN in the country that might be able to help him get UN refugee status. I don’t. But I was able to connect him with a friend who spent 20 years as a refugee in that country. I’m hoping he might be able to help this man find a safe space in which he can then figure out what his options are.

Forced displacement like this happens to 37,000 new people every day. When numbers become faces the weight of it all becomes real.

Hospitals and humanitarian space

Hospitals are places to which people go in response to a personal physical crisis. They exist to save lives and provide care until people are able to return home. They are populated with people in need of care and health care professionals – hardly a normal living environment.

No one mistakes a hospital for a long-term housing option. No one wants to be there any longer than necessary. No one calls a hospital home.

Although long-term patients might set a few relics from home in their room, they do not try to make their rooms mimic home. They long for the day they can leave and get on with life.

Such is life in humanitarian space.

Humanitarian space

I often describe the mission field in which we work as “humanitarian space”. Its no surprise that people struggle to understand what I mean, so I thought I’d use this blog to try and clarify.

This will likely be the first pondering of many on this subject. Hopefully it will become clear that missions in humanitarian space is not missions as usual. Missions is about contextualization and failure to understand the unique mission field of humanitarian space has ramifications.

IAFR was founded with this as a core conviction – the church belongs in humanitarian space. She has a vital, unique and essential role to play in the lives of forcibly displaced people. But the church at large has been slow to recognize that its mission includes humanitarian space. I’ll come back to this later. For now, let me try and describe what I mean by humanitarian space…

Humanitarian space is created to save lives. It is a space created in response to humanitarian crisis. It offers a safe place (refuge) to forcibly displaced people.

It is a created space. It is not a natural place. It only exists when people offer it to those in need. It has to be carved out of existing places. That is no easy task. Whether inhabited or not, we love our places and do not easily open them up to others – especially to people who are not like us. It is not easy to create space for others within the places we call our own.

It is supposed to be a temporary space, opening up as a refuge and then closing once the affected people can move on – ideally returning to their homes. In cases that do not offer the option of returning home, it offers refuge until some other kind of solution is made available – a solution that offers people place again.

But what happens when humanitarian space is needed for decades? What happens to people who are restricted to such space for generations? What happens to people who cannot return home and who are given no other option but to call humanitarian space their home? What happens to the hundreds of thousands of children born in humanitarian space and who have never known what it means to be from a place? What happens to children who see their father die in a refugee camp after spending 41 years in humanitarian space as did my friend Pastor Nomani?

I strongly caution my brothers and sisters to not set foot into humanitarian space before having contemplated such questions.